Kia Ora – that’s Maori for “be well”, but in New Zealand it’s the equivalent of a friendly greeting. Welcome to our New Zealand travel guide.
A small country with bucket loads of culture, New Zealand has a population of only around four million people spread out throughout the two islands. With its unique history, a mixture of Maori and European culture, New Zealand is truly a magical balance of history meets culture meets modern times.
Home to one of the most widely-acclaimed landscapes on Earth, New Zealand is a land formed by volcanic activity that brings with it some truly breathtaking and prehistoric panoramas.
Things to See and Do in New Zealand
New Zealand is so jam-packed with sites, adventure and culture, the hardest part of planning a trip is fitting it all in. Many visitors return to the islands time and time again, constantly discovering new and exciting things to do.
Queenstown is most commonly referred to as the adventure capital of New Zealand, if not the world. It’s home to the latest and greatest adventures from adrenaline activities such as skydiving and bungy jumping right through to water sports such as white water rafting. A fun fact: bungy jumping was actually invented in Queenstown in 1988. While it was originally considered a passing fad, bungy jumping has become an essential Queenstown activity. There are four-wheel drive and mountain biking adventures, helicopter rides, skyline gondolas and jet boating. So, if you’re up for a bit of adventure, Queenstown should be your first stop.
For those after something a bit chillier, glacier hiking on the South Island is available to people of all levels of ability. The two most accessible glaciers, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are well worth a stop. There are guided glacier walks that either take you onto the ice itself or guided walks that stick to the paths where you’ll learn about the history, legends of the area and make your way along the valley.
A country rich with natural wonder and spectacle, there’s plenty of fascinating things to explore from North to South.
A group of large ‘stones’ on Koekohe Beach on New Zealand’s South Island, Moeraki Boulders have naturally been exposed through shoreline corrosion. Even today, there are boulders within the coastal cliffs that are yet to fall. They’re one of the most popular and fascinating attractions on the South Island and it’s estimated that they’ve taken about four million years to get to their current size.
Known as the thermal wonderland of New Zealand, Wai-O-Tapu in Rotarua has been thousands of years in the making. It has often been described as a wonderland of geothermal activity and includes the Lady Knox Geyser which erupts to a height of up to 20 metres. There are three walks to choose from which take between 30 and 75 minutes. Make a whole day of it and do all three.
New Zealand is an excellent place for stargazing due to its remote location. It’s easy to get out of the city lights and into the country air where the stars are absolutely crystal clear. New Zealand is also one of the best places to view the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights. There are various locations around New Zealand where the lights are delightfully on display including Christchurch, Lake Tekapo, Stewart Island and Queenstown.
Head to Waitomo to explore the Caves. Go black-water rafting where you’ll float through a glow-worm studded wonderland, take a guided underground walking tour of Ruakuri Cave or step just inside the magical Aranui Cave that’s steeping in Maori legend.
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Best Places to visit in New Zealand
Anyone can tell you to visit the main cities, but here are some other ideas.
It’s one of the most popular attractions on the North Island and one of the most unique things to do – step inside a movie set in Hobbiton. Wander around the shire; it really is every bit as magical as The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit suggest.
White Island is one of the most impressive geothermal sights in the country. The majority of the volcano sits under the sea, however on the crater rim you’ll experience hot water streams, mud pools, an acid lake and steaming vents.
Dig you own spa at Hot Water Beach, one of the most popular places in New Zealand to visit. Located near Cathedral Cove, the best time to visit is two hours before and after high tide.
Milford Sound has one of the country’s great walks with incredible landscapes. The Milford Track was once referred to as “the finest walk in the world” by poet Blanche Baughan. If you’re not up for a multi-day hike, a visit to Milford Sound may just be enough. It was actually once described as the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling. With towering peaks and gushing waterfalls, it’s one of the most breathtaking places you’ll ever see.
A year-long whale watching destination, Kaikoura is also known for its scenic location with rugged coastline and snow-capped peaks surrounds. The whales often come quite close to shore so keep your eyes peeled.
For those wanting a bit of relaxation with an excellent glass of wine, head to Waiheke Island. It’s a popular day trip from Auckland, accessible by ferry, and it’s where most of New Zealand’s award-winning wines are produced. Take a wine tour or do it yourself, stay for one day or several, whatever you choose, you’re sure to enjoy.
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Best time to visit New Zealand
It’s normal to experience four seasons in one day in New Zealand, which can make packing for a holiday quite confusing. You also need to remember though that because the islands are narrow and long, weather can change drastically from one destination to the next.
The busiest time of year tends to be the summer – it’s the best weather overall. However, with the best weather come the tourists. It also means prices will be slightly higher and accommodation can be quite tricky to secure. Additionally, many restaurants and cafes may shut down during the height of summer as families head to the beach for holidays.
During the other times of year, the temperature is quite temperate. Winters are mild and short. However, if you’re heading to the mountains, brace for cold. Also, it does snow in the winter so unless you’re planning to spend time skiing, winter may not be your first choice for a visit.
The colours during autumn and spring are beautiful and the temperature is mild.
Tours and Deals
While you can do it on a budget, New Zealand isn’t the most wallet-friendly country to visit, so it may be wise to find a deal or tour to experience the country. There are always deals on flights and plenty of accommodation packages that you can find. It also may be nice to do a tour of New Zealand, or at least book part tours, so you are guided through the country. While it may not seem like such a big country (and it’s not), because there is so much to see and do, it can sometimes be overwhelming to book it all yourself.
A lovely idea is to drive through New Zealand. The roads are excellent and it means you can stop and start whenever you wish. The scenery is also lovely so doing it yourself means you can enjoy the landscapes as you go.
Choosing Where to Stay in New Zealand
There are, of course, the big hotel chains scattered throughout New Zealand. However, if you’re looking for something a bit different, here are some ideas.
North Island Accommodation
With 25 colourful, retro rooms, Hotel DeBrett is an eclectic option for travellers. The hotel is close to all of Auckland’s galleries, shopping and restaurants. It’s also family friendly with babysitting services.
Keen art fan? If you’re in Wellington, check in to the QT Museum Wellington. Contemporary art fills both the public and private spaces of the hotel and there’s also a boutique shop where you can purchase unique pieces. The rooms are funky, albeit decorated minimally.
If it’s a beach break you’re after, Trinity Wharf Tauranga is right on the waterfront with a private pontoon and a pool to enjoy. The hotel offers rooms and self-contained apartments if you need more space. It’s the perfect place to enjoy the sea while still being close to the city.
Tiki Tiki Ora is a gorgeous boutique B&B just outside of Russell with views of the bay. With just three suites, it’s private and peaceful with a gorgeous dining and outdoor area.
If you’re after some relaxation, Solitaire Lodge in Rotarua is luxurious and peaceful. The second oldest lodge in New Zealand, Solitaire overlooks Lake Tarawera with a relaxed and friendly vibe all year round.
South Island Accommodation
A boutique hotel in the heart of Christchurch, The George has excellent views, inside and out. With local art adorning the walls and Hagley Park just outside, The George is the perfect place to base yourself. There are also two restaurants and free mountain-bike hire to use to explore the area.
The Spire Hotel is tucked away down a side street of Queenstown, but don’t let this fool you. It’s a hidden jewel. It’s not on the shore of Lake Wakatipu but it’s sophisticated and modern, and it has lovely views.
If you want to be on Lake Wakatipu, try Matakauri Lodge. Each of the rooms have a private balcony or deck to enjoy the beautiful view of the lake. There’s also an infinity pool, a gym and a spa onsite and you’re just seven minutes from the centre of Queenstown.
Escape to Picton is a boutique hotel with a truly charismatic owner. Set in New Zealand’s Marlborough region, it only has three bedrooms so it’s truly private. Plus, there’s an excellent restaurant on site. Picton is a charming little town linking the South Island to the North.
With a rich history, Hulbert House is an excellent option for Queenstown visitors. The hotel was built using money from the 19th century gold rush and it has been lovingly restored into a luxurious Victorian guesthouse and is a lovely walk to the centre of the city.
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Best Places to Eat
New Zealand is known for its culture, adventure and wine. But the country also does food remarkably well.
North Island Restaurants
With a holistic approach to food, Sid at The French Café really offers an exquisite experience. It has been recognised with national and international awards and each dish is an experience itself. With tasting menus and a la carte options, the restaurant also specialises in vegetarian dishes.
With the same chef as The French Café, SidArt has been winning awards since it opened its doors. It’s all about fine dining with meticulously prepared dishes that look as exceptional as they taste.
Mudbrick Restaurant and Vineyard, in Waiheke Island, is set among the region’s best wineries. With beautifully manicured gardens and a diverse seafood-rich menu with matching wines, it’s truly an experience.
Another winery to enjoy, Elephant Hill Winery and Restaurant has breathtaking views over Cape Kidnappers and is the perfect place to unwind, and enjoy a glass of wine and some delectable food. The Hawke’s Bay restaurant is inspired by European cuisine and the menu is constantly updated depending on what’s in season.
The Sugar Club is located in Auckland’s Sky Tower, 53 floors above the city. With the freshest New Zealand produce and using ingredients from around the globe, the menu is exceptional and the views most definitely match.
A laid-back approach to fine food, Pacifica Restaurant combines culinary delights with a weathered blue beach bungalow. The five-course degustation menu changes daily depending on what ingredients are available. There are no white tablecloths, instead it’s all about true kiwi hospitality.
South Island Restaurants
Offering a total food and wine experience, the menu at Pegasus Bay in North Canterbury has been created around the wine list, rather than the other way around. Each dish is matched to a suggested wine and the menu is changed according to whatever produce is available. The dishes are simple and diverse.
Riverstone Kitchen is a café by day and restaurant by night, and it really does draw foodies from all over the country. Riverstone is all about classy creations with a shared feasting menu, using ingredients from their own vegetable garden and orchards.
Plato Café is situated in a former hostel for seafarers in Dunedin and it most definitely retains its links to the sea. The menu’s emphasis is on seafood and they offer their own personal beer made on site.
Overlooking Lake Hayes, Amisfield Winery and Bistro has a mantra: trust the chef. Their ‘trust the chef’ signature menu changes daily, offering a shared dining experience. The two-hat restaurant serves the best of what’s local and in season.
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Cultural Experiences in New Zealand
First stop on any cultural tour must be the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the first accord between the British Crown and Maori chiefs was signed in 1840. The document continues to play an important role today. When visiting, you can take a guided tour and view cultural performances.
While a colonial and modern country, New Zealand continues to embrace and thrive on Maori culture. To fully immerse yourself in New Zealand and to gain a full understanding of the rich history of the country, there are several places that are worth a visit.
With a strong Maori connection, visitors can experience the culture first-hand in Rotorua. The most renowned cultural exchanges include Tamaki Maori Village, Te Puia and Mitai aaori Village. Here, you can learn about New Zealand’s indigenous heritage and embrace some of the customs including a hangi dinner and a marae stay.
There are also several places throughout New Zealand that offer Maori cultural shows. While not immersive experiences, the Maori cultural shows include traditional songs and dances, haka performances and poi displays. It’s a great way to learn a bit about Maori mythology and history.
Footprints Waipoua is part eco-tour, part heritage encounter as locals share their knowledge. The guides are part of the region’s Ngapuhi tribe and as they take you on either day or night guided tours, they’ll share ancestral knowledge that has been passed on for generations.
Culture, tradition, sightseeing or adventure, rest, relaxation and rejuvenation, New Zealand has it all. How can you fit everything into one holiday? Just come back for more.